Earlier this month, an expedition funded by the National Science Foundation in Antarctica set out to determine how well the ice was faring through climate change. However, what the team discovered was not only shocking, but also has implications for the possibility of life on Jupiter’s moon, Europa. The team found a sub-glacial sea body that was surprisingly teaming with life despite the extreme conditions.
The Smithsonian Magazine reports that the Antarctica expedition made the discover when drilling through the Whillans Ice Stream. Whillans is a glacier that flows from the West Antarctic Ice Shelf to the Ross Ice Shelf. The team used a hot water-based drill to bore into the glacier’s “grounding zone.” The grounding zone is the area where the glacier leaves bedrock and meets the sea. Scientists say this area at the sea bottom looks bare and “rocky, like a lunar surface,” ironic since the research may also have implications on a moon.
An underwater vehicle called Deep-SCINI was sent into the hole to take photos and explore the sediment at the sea floor. Scientists hoped to get some great pictures of rocks and other sea floor sediments. However, what they found was far more than they had expected. In fact, the scientists would view over 20 different kinds of fish, crustaceans, and other invertebrates before they brought the Deep-SCINI back to the surface. Why is this thriving community of sea life so unexpected?
“Under 2,428 feet of ice and 528 miles from the edge of the ice shelf, the site is far from any hint of sunlight, the energy source that typically powers marine food webs.”
As a Space.com video points out, the ability for life to sustain in such extreme water conditions may be evidence that thriving sea life exists on Jupiter’s moon, Europa. A community such as the one found thriving under the Whillans Ice Stream could be sustained under the vast icy oceans of Europa.
Brent Christner, a microbiologist from Louisiana State University, points out that it is still unknown how these creatures are able to obtain energy, or where the energy is coming from.
“Food is in short supply and any energy gained is hard-won. This is a tough place to live. Without sunlight, the scant microbes there might be relying on chemical energy — minerals delivered by the moving ice above, currents traveling long distances or seeping up from sediments. The lack of mud dwellers might indicate that animals living this far under the ice shelf must be mobile enough to follow intermittent food sources from place to place.”